Pieniny – raised from the bottom of the sea – and the beautiful Spiš region

View on mountain peaks of Pieniny
It is in the area of the Pieniny Mountains that Mother Nature has been perfecting her sophisticated creation for millions of years; Brother Cyprian went down in legend as one of the first aviators; Bolesław III Wrymouth cut a trail for the Dunajec River through the mountains, St Kinga sought refuge in the Pieniny Castle, Janosik (Jánošík) crossed the rushing river with a mighty leap, and the Apollo butterfly still reigns in the skies.

An image forever etched in memory’

‘Pieniny is a small, rocky, group of mountains, clearly visible already from Nowy Targ, stretching from Czorsztyn to Szczawnica. Behind Sromowce, the Dunajec River cuts through this mountain range, creating several large bends and flowing to Szczawnica: this is the most beautiful part of its course. Perpendicular white limestone rocks, overgrown with lush vegetation, drop down to the river, and around every bend one discovers ever new, ever more beautiful and poetic views...’ - is one of the more famous descriptions of Pieniny, and owes it to Mieczysław Orłowicz, a doctor of law, sightseeing expert and one of the first popularisers of tourism. No wonder, then, that it is with this beautiful quotation from the ‘Illustrated Guide to Galicia’, published in 1919 in Lvov, that its tourist pages open to the Pieniny National Park.

However, in the consciousness of tourists, the Pieniny Mountains had already established themselves somewhat earlier, in the 19th century. Tourists used to go there from Podhale (link to the description of the Tatra Mountains and Podhale) along the Dunajec River valley, but also through slightly higher routes: from Stary Sącz and Szczawnica. And virtually nothing has changed
since then.

Pieniny was mentioned among others by Seweryn Goszczyński, a great populariser of the Podhale and Tatra lands. He did so, e.g., with his picturesque description of the Czorsztyn stronghold. ‘A lofty and unpleasant mountain, ruling over the neck of the Nowy Targ valley on one side, on the other starting a range of hills ending in the Pieniny rocks: this is the placement of Czorsztyn. The edifice itself stands on its southern side, rising perpendicularly from the flat meadow, naked as a wall of uniform pink rock. The wall of the castle from this side is like a further expansion of the rock; no mortal could leave or descend this way. The mere sight of the precipice of several dozen fathoms is dizzying, and yet it is difficult not to look,’ he notes in his Diary of a Journey to the Tatras.

Władysław Ludwik Anczyc, poet, playwright, translator, but also a popular publisher, became famous with a short, but very apt and still relevant statement: ‘Whoever has not been to the Tatra Mountains and the Pieniny Mountains has been nowhere and seen nothing’. It is fair to mention that he wrote these words down as early as in 1864.

Admiral of a flotilla hollowed out in ‘tree trunks’

Although it was not easy to get here, as this land was lost at the ‘end of the world’, among picturesque mountains and deeply incised valleys, its popularity grew year after year. And one of its biggest attractions, apart from the obviously unhurried hiking along the numerous and picturesque paths, was the rafting down the Dunajec Gorge.

Who was the first to flow down the Dunajec River with summer visitors in a poplar tree dugout canoe? This is unknown. What is certain is that Józef Szalay – the founder of the health resort in Szczawnica and a great advocate of these lands – contributed to the enormous promotion of this venture. From then on, it was no longer just individual dugout canoes that took to the river, but entire flotillas accompanied by rafts. When the exciting and bustling escapade was led by Szalay, then gratefully known as the ‘Admiral’, he sat in the first ‘flagship’ boat. His boat also featured a mortar, which was later used to fire into the air when crossing the Dunajec Gorge. The boats sailed in a strictly defined formation: first came the admiral’s dugout canoe, then a raft with a health resort orchestra (musicians entertained summer visitors at numerous stops and in Szczawnica), followed by other boats.

‘The boats that travel down the Dunajec River are hollowed-out tree trunks, tied together several at a time according to the number of people, always steered by two highlanders from Sromowce, Szczawnica, Krościenko (one of them, Józef Koterba, is even nicknamed ‘Admiral’) or Slovaks from Lechnica’ – this is how Orłowicz described the highlanders rafts a little later. ‘The boat, guided by the sure hand of the highlanders, floats calmly through the depths, and only occasionally on sudden dips does a wave toss it slightly, and the water pours into the boat’ – this, in turn, is how he recalled the rafting trip itself. At that time, it used to start by the Red Monastery (Červený Kláštor) and ended in Szczawnica. It was also possible to sail from ‘Czorsztyn, but only if you order the boats in advance’.

It should also be added that the boats ‘steered by the sure hand of the highlanders’ (since 1934 the organisation of rafting has been handled by the Polish Association of Pieniny Rafters on the Dunajec River‘ still navigate the impressive gorge, being one of the biggest and best-known attractions of the Małopolska region.

A miracle carved by the hand of Mother Nature

Where do the Pieniny Mountains and the Dunajec Gorge come from? The rocks that make up Pieniny – according to scientists – were once at the bottom of the sea. The first folding that brought them out occurred in the Cretaceous Period. Later on, there were a few more powerful rock-forming movements (so, perhaps there is a lot of truth in the legends about there being a powerful sea or lake in the area). What finally saw the light was later modelled by the wind, rain, snow... Water flowing down from the mountains persistently carved the rocks, washing out the more fragile parts. And that is how the picturesque Dunajec Gorge was created.

Or was it a little different after all? Perhaps, as legend recounts, the gorge was the work of Jesus, who split the rocks to save the people from death at the hands of the Tartars (while drowning a bloodthirsty army in the waters flowing from a vast lake with no previous outlet). There are also supporters of the theory that it was Bolesław III Wrymouth who carved out the mouth of the Dunajec River among the mountains, thus making the land available for new settlers.

Anyway, this extraordinary, almost fairy-tale world is still inhabited today by the Pieniny highlanders. They trace their roots back to Sromowce Niżne, Sromowce Wyżne, Szczawnica, Krościenko nad Dunajcem, Hałuszowa, Tylka, Krośnica, and Grywałd. They are most easily recognised by their distinctive light blue waistcoats with exquisite coloured embroidery, usually worn with a white shirt, as well as white embroidered pants and a black hat.

Where did the name Pieniny come from? Some derive it from the words pion (vertical) or piana (foam), but there are also supporters of the Celtic pen, which means a mountain.

To appreciate the power, charm, uniqueness and picturesqueness of this area, it is best to climb the Trzy Korony  or Sokolica, or hike the famous Pieniny Road  However, the other trails will also stay in our hearts for a long time and there are quite a few of them here.

Spiš, Central and Small

Pieniny are a part of the Carpathian chain, the highest range of the so-called Pieniny Klippen Belt. In the south they are adjacent to the Spišská Magura, in the west to the Orava-Nowy Targ Basin and the Spiš-Gubałówka Foothills, and in the north to Gorce and Beskid Sądecki. They are approximately 35 km long and between 3.5 and 6 km wide. Geographers divide them into three parts:

 Spiš Pieniny – from the Białka Valley to the Dunajec Gorge near Niedzica (dam on the Dunajec River). They are dominated by Żar – 879 metres amsl.

 Middle (Proper) Pieniny – from the Dunajec Gorge below Niedzica to the Dunajec Gorge between Sromowce Niżne and Szczawnica. Their highest peak is Trzy Korony – 982 metres amsl.

 Small Pieniny – from the Dunajec Gorge between Sromowce Niżne and Szczawnica to the Poprad Valley. They are dominated by Wysoka (Wysokie Skałki) 1,050 metres amsl, the highest peak in the Pieniny Mountains. Behind the valley of Grajcarek and Biała Woda starts the Beskid Sądecki range.

In the extraordinary world of the Pieniny National Park

The first official statement on the need to protect this priceless area – as the Pieniny National Park reminds visitors toits website – appeared as early as in 1921. It was delivered by Professor Władysław Szafer, Chairman of the State Commission for Nature Conservation. Later that year, Stanisław Drohojowski, owner of, among other things, a castle hill in Czorsztyn, created this reserve.

The following year, Professor Stanisław Kulczyński presented a project for a ‘Pieniny Reserve’, covering almost 17 square kilometres in the Trzy Korony massif and in Pieninki. The Pieniny National Park was established on 1 June 1932, and was the first national park in Poland. Engineer Tadeusz Owczarzak became its manager. It is also necessary to mention a beautiful social initiative that was launched two years earlier: the creation of a national park was ‘announced’ by activists of the Pieniny Branch of the Polish Tatra Society.

Nature reserve

 Biała Woda 

 Białka Gorge near Krempachy 

 Homole Gorge 

 Wysokie Skałki


Hiking trails made available by the Pieniny National Park

Waterway along the Dunajec Gorge

The Pieniny National Park asks visitors to keep in mind that ‘Tourist rafting through the Dunajec Gorge in the Pieniny Mountains may be carried out with floating equipment, without mechanical propulsion, only from 1 April to 31 October. Coming ashore in the Dunajec Gorge area is not permitted except in cases of emergency. Bathing and diving are strictly prohibited in the Dunajec Gorge. The rafts depart from Sromowce Wyżne – Kąty. After 2 or 3 hours, they arrive in Szczawnica Niżna or Krościenko.

Hiking trails in the Pieniny National Park

 blue: Czorsztyn entrance pavilion of the Pieniny National Park – shepherd’s hut on the Majerz Glade – Trzy Kopce – Szopka Pass – Trzy Korony – Kosarzyska Glade – Pieniny Castle – Bajków Gronik – Burzana Glade – Czertezik – Sosnów Pass – Sokolica – transport across the Dunajec River – entrance pavilion of the Pieniny National Park – Szczawnica rafting harbour – for the ferry across the Dunajec River we pay PLN 4 (adults) or PLN 2 (children under 10)

 yellow: Krościenko Market Square – Bajków Groń – Szopka Pass – Sromowce Niżne

 green: Sromowce Niżne – Kosarzyska Glade

 green: Krościenko Market Square – Kras – Sosnów Pass

 green: Krościenko Market Square – Burzana Glade – Czertezik

 green: Czorsztyn – Czorsztyn Castle

 red: rafting harbour Sromowce Wyżne – Kąty – Trzy Kopce

 red (Pieniny Road): Szczawnica harbour – entrance pavilion of the Pieniny National Park – ferry – border crossing – Leśnicki Stream – Huta – Červený Klastor – Cerla – Plasna – Veľký Lipnik

 blue: Leśnicki Stream – entrance pavilion to Pieninský Národný Park (PIENAP) – Lesnica Centre – Vyhliadka – Cerla – Červený Klastor

 yellow: Huta – Vyhliadka

 green: Lesnica – Plasna – Haligovske Skaly – Haligovce

Cycling routes in the Pieniny National Park

 red (Pieniny Road): Szczawnica Pavilion of the Pieniny National Park – border crossing – Lesnicki Potok – Červený Klastor – 10.5 km

 green: Krościenko, Św Kingi Street, gateway to the Pieniny National Park – St Kinga’s Chapel – Zawiesy – Kras to the path toward Sokolica – 2.5 km

The Pieniny National Park advises: ‘Cycling routes overlap with the walking trails. Cyclists are asked to take caution.’

Trails accessible to wheelchair users and tourists with pushchairs

 green: Czorsztyn – Czorsztyn Castle – to the loop at the foot of the castle

 green: Krościenko Market Square – Karst – to the departure for the path to Sokolica

 red (Pieniny Road): Szczawnica Harbour – Červený Klastor

 blue: Leśnicki Stream – entrance pavilion to PIENAP – Chata Pieniny – Leśnica Centre

 yellow: Sromowce Niżne – PTTK Trzy Korony shelter

From the panorama of the Tatra Mountains to the bell scaring away the planetniks

Where can we find the oldest panorama of the Tatra Mountains? Why did the Inca treasure end up in the Niedzica stronghold? Who built the massive cellars in Frydman? What is the Spiš Baroque? How did people used to scare away the planetniks? We will learn all about this during a fascinating trip along the paths of the Polish Spiš region.

These are the borderlands where Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian and Wallachian fates have intertwined over the centuries. It is also a micro-world with a turbulent history, idiosyncratic architecture and magnificent architecture, fascinating works of art and extraordinary stories, as well as a unique culture.

Frydman is not only the oldest village in the Polish Spiš region, but also a place rich in colourful history and remarkable monuments. It appeared in the pages of history as early as in the 13th century, and we can find here not only the church of St Stanislaus the Bishop originating in the 13th-century, but also a brick-fortified manor house, traditionally known as the castellum, and the famous Frydman cellars.

Picturesque paths will probably also lead us to the Dunajec Castle in Niedzica, a fortress built in the 14th century to protect the northern border of... Hungary. Perhaps we will find not only a charming ghost, but also an Incan treasure.

Another site worth a look is the church of  St Catherine of Alexandria in Nowa Biala, a wonderful example of the so-called Spiš Baroque. In Trybsz, on the other hand, in a wooden temple dedicated to St Elizabeth of Hungary, we will probably appreciate the craftsmanship of the creators of the polychrome paintings with scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints, but also the rendering of the lines of the Tatra peaks, which are the background for the Last Judgement. Let us just add that this is the oldest surviving panorama of the Tatras seen from the north.

Church of  Sts Peter and St Paul is the pride of Łapsze Wyżne and a fine example of the Rococo style in Polish Spiš. In Łapsze Niżne, in turn, we can find the only temple in Poland dedicated to St Quirinus, a bishop and martyr active in what is now Croatia at the time of Emperor Diocletian. Kacwin, or the ‘Cat’s Nook’, tempts not only with its charming chapels, the All Saints Church, but also sypańce: the clay-plastered wooden buildings with a stone foundation (link to description of sypańce in the open-air museum in Kacwin), where, among other things, grain and meat was once stored. And while you are here, you cannot miss the Pod Młynarzką and Pod Upłazem waterfalls, as well as the extensive views of the grey Tatra Ridge and the Pieniny peaks glowing in the distance.

Białka Gorge and the world’s oldest boomerang

On the border of the Podhale and Spiš regions lies the picturesque gorge of the Białka River at one time, the river, together with the Dunajec, formed the border between Poland and Hungary), squeezed between the rock of Kramnica and Obłazowa. It was in the latter rock that the oldest traces of prehistoric humans were found in the cave, together with the tusk of a woolly mammoth that was fashioned into what is believed to be the oldest boomerang in the world. Film fans probably remember this place from scenes from the cult TV series ‘Janosik’.

The not so distant pass over Łapszanka is considered a cult place for all those who collect the most beautiful panoramas of the Tatras (link to the description of the mystical Tatra Mountains and magical Podhale). The chapel of Our Lady of Częstochowa is also worth a visit. It was once believed that the sound of its bell warded off lightning and scared off planetniks, i.e., all those who had committed suicide or drowned themselves and now wished to bring calamity to the village.

Pieniny and Spiš – tourist diamonds of the Małopolska region

Pieniny and Spiš are another beautiful face of the Małopolska region. To discover their fascinating secrets, you can choose to hike, cycle or ride a horse, but you can also wander without a firm destination in mind. You will also easily find ski slopes and cable cars, the dam in Niedzica and the charming paths of the Pieniny National Park, but also the elegant promenades in Krościenko nad Dunajcem and the resort famous for its sorrels: Szczawnica.

Spring, summer, autumn or winter: each season here provides an unforgettable, slightly different but fascinating experience. In this place, the fates of the people are harmoniously intertwined with history, while the elaborate monuments gracefully complete the picture of this beautiful micro-world. Add to this the colourful costumes, unusual customs and habits, and a masterpiece expedition is born... 

‘Whoever once got to know these places (...) will have their image forever engraved in his memory,’ is how Jan Nepomucen Rostworowski once beautifully wrote about the present Trzy Korony peak. However, this description can be somewhat extended to cover the entire Pieniny and Spiš regions. You do not believe it? Check it out!


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